From time to time – usually in the comments on one of my posts on Ricochet -- someone asks me the state of play of Michigan, and I nearly always answer that I am the wrong man to ask. Yes, I live in Michigan, but I live in a town of with a population of 8,203 in south-central Michigan no more than 18 miles from the Indiana-Ohio line. I have never lived in or around Detroit, Lansing, or Grand Rapids, where the action is.
I have a pretty good feel for Oklahoma, having lived there, in Oklahoma City or Tulsa, much of my life. I have next to none for Michigan, where, technically (but only technically), I have lived now for nearly five and a half years. That having been said, I can add that I am not completely ignorant. I have thrashed about in search of information, and my far-from-perfect observations might be of some use, especially if they stir those better informed from their lethargy and cause them to correct or amplify further my observations in comments or posts of their own.
To comprehend what is going on in Michigan, one must begin with a simple observation: Michigan in 2012 is not what Michigan was in 2000. The state is changing and changing fast, and this election may determine its future for many years to come.
Let me start with the obvious. For the last decade and longer, Michigan has been near the top in unemployment. Well before General Motors and Chrysler went bankrupt, they were failing, and one sign of their decline was that they began in-sourcing what they had formerly outsourced. What this meant for Michigan was the collapse of a host of small factories scattered throughout the state. Hillsdale, where I live, lost six of its seven such factories in the last 15 years.
This process of decline, which reached its denouement with the collapse of the auto industry, had as its consequence a sharp demographic drop. Between 2000 and 2008, Michigan lost roughly 10% of its population. By now, I suspect that 15% have left.
To this one can add the implosion of Detroit. In 2000, Detroit was still a major American city. Now it is a black hole. The median price of a house in the city that, in 1950, was the wealthiest community per capita in the United States is now about $10,000. The city that, in 1950, was the fourth largest in the country is now the second largest in Michigan, and every year it shrinks.
These developments cut in various ways. For starters, the United Auto Workers union is not what it was. It includes a vast host of retirees, to be sure. But many of them have moved where the sun shines in the winter. There are not very many working people left in the union. Barack Obama is not going to tell you, but Government Motors is busy moving production to China, and Chrysler is . . . well . . . Chrysler hardly exists. To this one can add that the black political machine in Detroit is very nearly dead. Coleman Young and his successors ate their seed corn, and now there is no harvest.
Moreover, as Detroit has emptied out, so have the chic suburbs around Detroit – which may matter, given that the country club set has embraced abortion with a vengeance and has been resolutely trending Democratic in recent years.
One indicator of the political fallout is the fact that, in 2010, the Republicans in Michigan won a landslide, taking both houses and the governor’s chair. Grand Rapids and western Michigan more generally – districts for the most part Republican and prosperous – are now weightier than Detroit and its satellite communities.
But there is another side to this story. As a colleague of mine, who is politically savvy and who has lived in Michigan now for twenty-seven years, observed to me the other day, “Over the course of the last twelve years, a lot of the folks in eastern Michigan with get-up-and-go got up and went.” There are a lot more people in Michigan today looking for handouts than there were in 2000. The check-out clerk at the local Kroger’s told my wife the other day that something on the order of 86% of those who shop there are buying their groceries with food stamps or the like.
What makes matters worse is the fact that the Republican governor elected in 2010 is a businessman all too typical of the businessmen who go into politics. If you have never heard his name, there is a reason. He brings to the political arena the amoral, apolitical mindset all too common among men of commerce, whose only concern is to buy cheap and sell dear; and his thinking is resolutely short-term. Michigan is now and has long been a mess, but he is not willing to address fundamentals; and, at a time, when the state is poised on the razor’s edge, he is unwilling to contemplate revisiting the arrangements made by those in the past who brought us to the disaster we now face.
Do not get me wrong. Rick Snyder is not a complete ignoramus. He was a successful businessman, and he has the wit to understand that the budget must be balanced. But he does not want to upset any of the powers that be. He sees governing solely as a matter of management.
Moreover, there is one particular in which he was willing to revisit past arrangements. His background in business made him acutely sensitive to the fact that the corporate tax rate in Michigan has been driving businesses away. So, quite rightly, he proposed slashing that particular tax. He also understands the threat posed to future budgets by healthcare costs, and he and the Republicans in the legislature capped public spending on public employees’ healthcare costs at 80%.
Snyder was not, however, willing to cut expenditures dramatically to bring them in line with the size of the current population. Instead, he proposed extending the state income tax to pensions, which it had never covered before. He did not have the wit to recognize that – whatever its effectiveness may be in the short run – in the long run, such a measure is not apt to increase revenues: which is to say, that it is an invitation to pensioners to move to Florida, Texas, or some other state with winters less severe, where their pensions will not be taxed by the state.
The UAW and its sister unions have owned Michigan for more than 50 years, and, in their eagerness for short-term gain, they bankrupted the auto industry, and they have gradually made of the state a hell-hole that businesses resolutely flee. Rick Snyder had the votes in the legislature to make Michigan a right-to-work state and cripple the unions. But, like most businessmen, he is timid in the face of potential conflict, and he instinctively shuns anything that would really ruffle feathers. He did not have the courage or perhaps the imagination to stage a confrontation with the unions in the manner of Scott Walker, and so he nixed right-to-work. In effect, he opted for half-measures; and, in the process, he squandered a mandate to change things in the state. Michigan is a bit like the Titanic. It is on a dangerous course, and when its captain had the opportunity to take it on a new and safer course, he opted, instead, to rearrange the chairs on its deck. Had he been up for re-election this year, I am told, Rick Snyder would have lost the primary.
Snyder’s fecklessness has left the Republicans divided and demoralized; and, sensing timidity and weakness on their part, the unions and their allies in the environmental movement and in the feminist left have gone on an offensive. The UAW may be on its way out. But, before it disappears, it will, if it can, pass the torch to the public sector unions and the left more generally. Here is how it proposes to do so.
When Michiganders go to the polls on the first Tuesday in November, they will have to decide on a number of ballot proposals – all aimed at amending the state constitution. The second of these will embed collective bargaining in the state constitution. Among other things, it will “invalidate existing or future state or local laws that limit the ability to join unions and bargain collectively, and to negotiate and enforce collective bargaining agreements, including employees’ financial support of their labor unions,” and it will “override state laws that regulate hours and conditions of employment to the extent that those laws conflict with collective bargaining agreements.” Pause and think about what these provisions mean vis-à-vis public-sector unions. They makes them a permanent political player armed with the money to get their nominees into local public office, where, without any legal restrictions whatsoever, they can turn around and negotiate with the unions to which they owe their election agreements enriching these same unions. If this passes, Michigan, which is already in trouble, will go the way of California, New York, and Illinois.
All over Hillsdale, in the yards of schoolteachers and others who work for the government, I see signs supporting this ballot proposal. I have seen no signs opposing it, and I have received no literature in the mail or through email urging that I vote against it. One side is organized; and, as far as I can tell, the other side is not. Shikha Dalmia has criticized this proposal in The Wall Street Journal, and Betsy Woodruff has discussed it on National Review Online. But, locally, silence reigns.
The third of the ballot proposals is aimed at amending the constitution to “require electric utilities to provide at least 25% of their annual retail sales of electricity from renewable energy sources, which are wind, solar, biomass, and hydropower, by 2025.” At the same time, it limits “to not more than 1% per year electric utility rate increases charged to consumers” for the purpose of achieving “compliance with the renewable energy standard,” and it requires “the legislature to enact additional laws to encourage the use of Michigan made equipment and employment of Michigan residents.” Take a moment to digest the implications of this. In effect, it embodies a program for bankrupting the utility companies and for withdrawing Michigan from the system of free trade that constitutes the American union.
The fourth ballot initiative proposes that the state constitution be amended to authorize the Michigan Quality Home Care Council “to set minimum compensation standards and terms and conditions of employment” for “in-home care workers,” and it will allow these workers “to bargain collectively” with that council. Its aim is to force all of those who look after the disabled and the elderly to join the Service Employees International Union.
At the same time, the Democrats are running three radical feminists – two white and one black woman – for the Supreme Court against the three conservative men up for re-election, and Debbie Stabenow (arguably the least intelligent current member of the United States Senate) is leading Pete Hoekstra, a former Republican Congressman from Grand Rapids, by 13% in the Real Clear Politics polling average. Rasmussen has her 12% ahead. I have seen her advertisements with some frequency on the internet. I have heard nothing about her opponent. If I were not following the race, I would not even know that Hoekstra is the Republican candidate.
The polls suggest that Mitt Romney has a shot at taking Michigan. He is behind 4.4% in the Real Clear Politics polling average. But that may be misleading. The two most recent polls – Rasmussen and the Detroit News – have him behind 7%.
I am wary of the polls this year, and I would love to know the party breakdown of these polls and of the polls taken back in 2010. But I would not be shocked if our side suffered a debacle in Michigan this year. If the ballot proposals being pushed by the left pass, if the left takes over the state supreme court, I shudder to think what will follow. This is the sort of damage that it is likely to be impossible to repair.
If my fears are realized, it will be due to the fecklessness of a single Republican – who had a chance to set things right but failed to recognize that bad management is not the chief source of Michigan’s problems and that he had to confront more fundamental problems and articulate an argument appealing to justice in defense of what he intended to do.
This fact ought to give one pause. If Mitt Romney wins in November -- and I still expect him to win by a landslide -- I sure hope that he does not revert to the technocratic, apolitical bipartisanship that marked his tenure as governor in Massachusetts. If he does, we may see Barack Obama back in 2016 . . . or someone worse.
ADDENDUM: Those of you in diverse parts would do us all a service if you wrote abut what is going on in your localities. What is happening in Colorado, Ohio, Wisconsin, New Mexico, and the like?
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